Monthly Archives: November 2009

On Deja Vu

Is there such a thing as a visual cliché?

Intruder, Jill Bialosky Public Dream, Frances Leviston

Both are poetry collections. One is ‘a study in the nature of reality, selfhood, and the different levels of consciousness we inhabit’; the other is much more concerned with ‘ideas of the waking world, and the world as it is imagined or dreamt’. Ahem.

I don’t suppose this particular coincidence says an awful lot, really: a misty, light-flecked, snowbound scene, evocative of Narnia and Manhattan parks and lonely childhoods, sells poetry. I wish I didn’t find it symptomatic of the slushy state of the poetry marketplace in general. As Peter Hughes puts it, rather majestically: “Hundreds of books and magazines continue to print thousands of poems in which a person wearing sensible shoes modestly observes how some rhubarb reminds them of their dad”.

Every gushing review I read of a new collection of ‘crystalline poems remarkable for their precision and focus’ (for instance) makes me want to torture a fairy. If you do by any chance stumble across a bad review, be sure to ignore it and if possible buy the collection in question. Normally, it’s just a bit different; perhaps it doesn’t include the word ‘heft’, or any reference to dusk, foxes, or childhood. Perhaps some poems in it avoid lapsing into trite epiphany  – what’s known as the Damascus Syndrome, a common affliction. Perhaps the poet is under 30 and not working in academia and doesn’t like the Goldberg Variations and certainly hasn’t written a ‘ecstatic and utterly crystalline’ poetic sequence about them.

The poetry I read is often dull, and the reviews altogether deadening. It’s all a matter of taste, I suppose, and mine could be off – I do after all have a thing for McNuggets. I wish, though, more of what I read were like Roy Fisher’s long poem ‘Furnace’, which I’m reading at the moment. I intend to write more fully about it down the line, but here’s a snippet of this subtly refracted lyric:

approaches my passive taking-in,
then surrounds me and goes by
will have itself understood only
phase upon phase
by separate involuntary
strokes of the mind, dark
swings of a fan-blade
that keeps a time of its own
made up from the long
discrete moments
of the stages of the street,
each bred off the last as if by

O! Such an irresistible, crystalline intelligence.

NB. I own Public Dream and actually enjoyed it. This is a pretty fantastic poem. August Kleinzahler’s written quite a good review of Fisher’s ‘Collected Poems’ here.


On Reading

He opened the book and thrilled at being alone in it.

Brueghel / Q

Breughel Proverbs

Brueghel is that mischievous photographer who mistimes the shot to catch you gawping drunkenly; an unscrupulous collector of wonky stares, pimples scratched, that peculiar twitch, those odd bulges – everyday absurdities we look in the mirror to forget.

He painted the totally ordinary and the fantastic in conjunction: piggy-backing, bare arses and haymaking; a man with waffles tied to his hat, a skeleton playing hurdy-gurdy. A flash-flood of. Miscellanies of grotesquery and grot. Seventeen in the bed and the little one laughed. The best bits of ‘Where’s Wally?‘ and  a fleshy, rude wit to boot. Jamboree of the banal, the bawdy and the bestial.

But Brueghel wasn’t just a saucy Flemish cartoonist. He’d a beautiful sense of colour – late ochre and russet, the hushed blue of snow against bark – and crucially, despite their surreal incongruities, his works have a representativeness and a fidelity about them: they fit the sixteenth century perfectly. He painted common people in common professions without resorting to affectation or sentiment, and often his paintings were visual representations of common proverbs or adages, many now defunct. He combined panoramic scope with an exaggerated flatness to skew perspective in such a way that his best paintings suggest artlessness, immediacy and concealed metaphor at the same time.


After finishing Wolf Hall, finding myself hankering after more sixteenth century spilt into words,  I was pleased to come across Q (in a dark corner of the market), a novel which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of an Anabaptist heretic through the upheaval in mainland Europe during the Reformation. Same period, similar themes – the Church, power, political intrigue – but these novels are two peas from very different pods.

Q was written by four Italian authors under the pseudonym ‘Luther Blissett’ – a notoriously inept British footballer who once played for Milan. Its protagonist too remains nameless throughout, though he takes on multiple aliases as he hunts for the mysterious Q, who is an undercover spy for the Inquisition.

The novel suffers from obvious flaws: it’s outrageously overblown and inconsistently paced. The two principle characters’ motivations are never convincingly explored or even fully explained. Stylistically, it jerks and flails a bit (though it is translated from the Italian):

“Almost blindly.

What I have to do.

Screams in my ears already bursting with cannon fire, bodies crashing into me. My throat choked with bloody, sweaty dust, my coughs tearing me apart.”

No matter. Whereas Wolf Hall is meticulously directed, this is a brash, breathless maul of a plot, taking in multiple battles, massacres, mad prophets, instances of enforced polygamy, swindling, espionage, torture, and a singular German nobleman who calls his underlings ‘absolute dickheads’. It’s a Brueghel-esque mash.

Q is in fact resolutely and purposefully a ‘flat’ novel – one reviewer called it a species of ‘anti-novel‘ – and it is self-consciously playful,  but it is not without ambition. It works in the same way as Brueghel’s paintings manage to frame the madness of the rabble: by compressing and caricaturing and foregrounding. Brueghel painted the crowd, a press of people;  I think Q is an attempt to write a flood of events in a way that represents how things happen in a rush of odd collocations and coincidences, without resolving themselves beforehand. It’s compulsive and memorable, and whilst not entirely successful, a lot of fun.